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Climate crisis a threat multiplier for senior citizens

The Lancet Countdown report on health and climate change identified older adults as a vulnerable population experiencing excess morbidity and mortality associated with extreme weather, such as alarming heatwaves, widespread wildfires, and violent hurricanes.

The adverse effects of climate change have been recorded as having a range of negative human rights impacts on those who are already in vulnerable situations. Factors such as poverty, age, and being part of an indigenous population when coupled with the climate crisis contribute to the vulnerability status of individuals. According to PAHO, in 2021 people over 65 years of age accounted for over 9.3% of the total population in Dominica.


This figure is expected to further increase to almost one-quarter by 2040. PAHO further points out that the dependency ratio (adults aged 65 and older for every 100 people aged 15–64) in 2000 was 18, and is estimated to more than double, to 38, by 2040.


My 2nd climate justice story with Climate Tracker took me near one of Dominica’s Premiere Tourism Sites namely the Kalinago Barana Aute in Salybia, Kalinago Territory. After an 8-minute walk from the main road – I met with Mr Joaness Francis an indigenous elder. Francis, in his late 80s, is partially blind and experiences mobility issues. As an elder who has medical issues, Francis is still partly responsible for caring for his physically challenged son pre and post-Hurricane Maria in 2018.


climate crisis
Destruction caused by Hurricane Maria, in Dominica. AFP/Getty Images

Housed in a small open wooden structure, which does not have potable water or electricity, Francis is often dependent on his caregiver for his daily meals. His family relies on the monthly allowance of $132 US to meet their basic needs such as food and disposable diapers. Based on Francis’s age, and economic and medical status, his family falls within the most vulnerable category.



However, plans to relocate him and his physically challenged son to a safer location have been futile. Francis and his son have also not been touched by the World Bank Housing Recovery Project nor the European Union’s housing project and are left rather unprepared for future climate disasters.


Senior citizens in Francis’s position are less able to compensate for the effects of certain environmental hazards associated with climate change. Their overlapping vulnerabilities make it difficult to get to safety during extreme weather events. Hence, due to a variety of factors as seen in Francis’ case, older adults are unable to flee to safe areas and protect themselves from injuries during disasters. They may also be compromised or solely dependent on others for assistance and rescue. Other concerns that make climate disasters especially difficult for some older adults include the fact that temporary shelters can be confusing, crowded, and located in unfamiliar open public places.



Moreover, in post-climate disasters, older people with cognitive challenges can experience emotional trauma and social isolation. Adults like Francis’ son who have complex medical conditions impacting physical, sensory, and cognitive skills are often incapable of caring for themselves and responding to climate disasters.


Assigned a caregiver under the National Employment Program (NEP), Francis is heavily dependent on the caregiver to retrieve his medication which can be fragmented during climate disasters. Senior citizens, like Francis, whose simple life does not contribute to climate change have a significantly higher mortality risk in extreme weather events, both of which are exacerbated by climate change. Post-climate disaster, they are further punished as they have limited access to resources, all of which may limit their adaptive capacity.



In response to the issues, Lorenzo Sanford, the Kalinago Chief for the Kalinago Territory acknowledged that older adults are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Sanford notes that inclusive community planning and spirit can help reduce their vulnerability as the contributions of ordinary community members can be a powerful and simple way to assist senior citizens. Chief Sanford also mentioned that there is a need to protect the rights of senior citizens and embrace them in climate action as they can provide indigenous knowledge that can enlighten community action plans.


Chief Sanford also reiterated that an ageing population presents challenges for healthcare funding and social support in the face of the climate crisis. He pointed out that the impact of climate change on older adults is an enormous social concern as the impact of climate-induced disasters is considered a threat multiplier, hence accessing climate funding for indigenous populations must be a priority.


As seen in Francis’ case, the climate justice conversation needs to be focused on the social impacts on ordinary people such as older adults and concerted efforts must be placed on addressing the needs of elders. This shift in paradigm is necessary as “Social determinants of health” like economic security or substandard housing coupled with race contribute to vulnerability and can exacerbate the impact of the climate crisis. Although the Commonwealth of Dominica is one of the countries which least contributes to climate change, its older residents are some of the most affected and are among those most at risk, hence climate funding is critical in the country’s social response to climate change.



This story was originally published by Dominica News Online, with the support of the Caribbean Climate Justice Journalism Fellowship, which is a joint venture of Climate Tracker and Open Society Foundations.



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